In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival

Rie Kido Askew, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 3 (Book review 4 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 6 October 2013.

John Dougill, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2012, pp. xi-xxi, 3-234.

Christianity is sometimes said to conflict with Japanese sensibilities. Despite Japan’s “fervid Westernisation” since the Meiji Restoration, despite the adoption of some aspects of Christianity such as Christmas, and despite the existence of prestigious educational institutions, the Christian population of Japan remains about 1 percent of the total population (p. 223). The noted Catholic author Endō Shūsaku (1923-1996) once attributed the unpopularity of Christianity in Japan to its image as a “father religion,” which he contrasted to the Japanese “mother religion.” A “father religion” is a religion of an angry God who is stern and rigorous while a “mother religion” is a religion of a loving God who is gentle and forgiving. Whatever one may think about Endō’s argument, there does seem to be little hope that Christianity will ever gain a wide following in Japan.

There was, however, an age in which many Japanese were passionate Christians. This age is sometimes called the “Christian century,” the years from 1549 to 1650, during the warring states period and the first decades of the Edo period (1603-1867).

1549 is the year in which the Jesuit priest Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) arrived in Japan and in which Christianity was first introduced. Partly due to the curiosity of the Japanese and their interest in new ideas, Xavier was welcomed with open arms. In his letter to Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), he wrote “Japan is the only country yet discovered in these regions where there is hope of Christianity permanently taking root” (cited at p. 34). His high opinion of Japan shaped the Japanese mission. Xavier was respectful of Japanese culture and “made efforts to adapt to local ways” (p. 34). This attitude was inherited by the major exponent of the Japanese mission, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who “implemented a policy of adaptation” (p. 68). Thus the Jesuits won the hearts of many Japanese, including powerful feudal lords. Xavier’s hopes seemed to be well on the way to realisation.

However, the Japanese enthusiasm for Christianity was at least in part based on a misunderstanding. Struggling to translate the concept of the Christian God, Xavier used a Buddhist concept, referring to God by the name, Dainichi (Creator of All Things). “As a result, people simply assumed the newcomers were preaching a new type of Buddhism” (p. 22). As Dougill says, this “was a reasonable assumption” (p. 22). The misunderstanding was compounded when Buddhist monks allowed Xavier to use their temples as places to preach. And of course Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries “had arrived from India,” and were indeed called “Indians” or “Tenjikujin” in Japan (p. 22).

Moreover, despite the Jesuit “policy of adaptation,” there still remained a gap between Japan and Christianity. Christianity undermined both loyalty to feudal lords and traditional beliefs such as ancestor worship. Moreover, monotheistic “Christians look to the truth” while polytheistic Japanese look “to truths” (p. 224). By the end of the sixteenth century, Christianity came to be seen as “a pernicious doctrine” which threatened to subvert Japanese customs (p. 94). Christians thus began to be persecuted. The year 1628 records the first use of the fumie (sacred picture), by “which people had to tread on religious images as proof of renunciation” (p. 97). Those who refused to do so were punished. Various forms of torture were invented and practiced. The most notorious of all is “the pit” which “involved bodily suspension in a pit or a hole” (C. R. Boxer, Christian Century in Japan). By 1650, Christianity in Japan had been officially rooted out.

During the age of brutal persecution, many Japanese Christians chose to be martyrs. “They race to martyrdom as if to a festival” recorded one missionary (p. 105). Not everyone, however, chose to do so. One group of people hid their faith and survived. They are called the Hidden Christians or Kakure Kirishitan. John Dougill’s new book, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, is about this wondrous community which still exists today in Kyūshū.

The greatest attraction of this book is that Dougill presents a history of the Hidden Christians in an approachable and enjoyable fashion. Though it is a product of academic research, it is like a novel in that it appeals not only to the intellect but also to emotion. This is because it is partly written in the (comparatively) casual style of a travelogue. Dougill makes a pilgrimage to the Christian sites in Kyūshū (and elsewhere). The honest wonder and disappointment he expresses during his travels are refreshing.

Some might be unhappy that the book is more devoted to the early Christian history than to the Hidden Christians themselves. But this is because the author wants his readers to understand the issue of the Hidden Christians in a wider context. As the subtitle suggests, the book explains the whole history of the Hidden Christians including the “story of suppression, secrecy and survival.”

Dougill’s research trip is also a spiritual journey. As he says in his preface, “I came to see the Hidden Christians in terms of a mirror image. Here was I, a European interested in Japanese spirituality: they on the other hand were Japanese attracted to a European religion” (p. xiii). How did they deal with the clash between the East and the West, which is embodied in the “contrast between East Asian polytheism and Christian monotheism” (p. xii)? This question is Dougill’s own. So the purpose of his travels is not just to “uncover Hidden Christians”, but to “understand more fully the country” and “to journey deeper into Japan, past and present” (p. xiii).

One of the points I particularly found interesting in the book was the idea that the tea ceremony was possibly influenced by the Catholic Mass. Sen no Rikyū (1521-1591), the sixteenth century tea master who perfected the tea ceremony, mixed in circles in which Christians were active, and there are indeed similarities between the Japanese tea ceremony and the Catholic Mass such as “[r]aising the tea to head height as a token of respect” and “wiping the bowl after drinking with a white cloth” (p. 72). The Japanese confectionary that accompanies the green tea could “have been inspired by the wafer that accompanies wine in the Mass” (p. 72). Here the East meets the West.

The Hidden Christians in the Edo period were not only those who secretly clung to their Christian faith, but also those who publicly renounced their faith by treading on the fumie (sacred picture) every year. Strictly speaking, in other words, the Hidden Christians were apostates who were “living a double life—Buddhist in name, Kirishitan [Christian] in belief” (p. 131). The Church certainly disapproved of such a double life as a “disgrace,” but this was the only way they could survive (p. 104). This is also why revering Virgin Mary was so important: they wanted a maternal figure through whom they could ask God to forgive them their sins. As Dougill notes, referring to Endō Shūsaku, the Hidden Christians Japanified Christianity, by reshaping the Western strict “father religion” into a Japanese compassionate “mother religion” (p. 148).

Perhaps surprisingly, even after the ban on Christianity was lifted by the Meiji government in 1873, the Hidden Christians (or at least half of them) did not join any Catholic (or Christian) church, mainly because to join a new church meant to abandon the special teaching handed down by their ancestors. Since their ancestors needed to pretend to be believers of Shinto-Buddhist – “[i]n 1635, forced registration with temples was introduced” – they were “obliged by law to belong to a Buddhist sect” (p. 98). That is, the “Buddhist and Shinto camouflage adapted out of necessity in the early years became fully integrated into the religion” (p. 168). Rejoining the church therefore meant “accepting that what they practiced was wrong” and “accepting that their ancestors were condemned to damnation” (p. 191). Like heathen Japanese, the Hidden Christians wanted to serve their ancestors, and so have been reluctant to rejoin the church.

Due to these heathen aspects of the Hidden Christians, “some contemporary practitioners refer to themselves simply as Hidden (Kakure), dropping the Christian part” (p. 223). They do not think their faith is Christianity, but a form of “Japanese folk religion” (p. 223). This is the view shared by Dougill. He says “Their faith had undergone many changes during the long years of persecution, as a result of which it had diverged so far from the original that it was often unrecognisable” (p. 223).

Yet what is “original” Christianity? When Dougill mentions this, he is probably thinking of Christianity as a “father religion.” According to Endō Shūsaku, however, Christianity has aspects of “mother religion” as symbolised in the Catholic reverence for the Virgin Mary (and he thinks this motherly aspect has been largely ignored by missionaries in Japan, who implemented the image of Christianity as a “father religion”). So reshaping Western (paternal) Christianity into a Japanified (maternal) religion is not necessarily a distortion.

If the Hidden Christians are today arguably not Christians, they are not exactly hidden either. According to Dougill, “hidden” too is an inappropriate appellation because of their open nature. For some Hidden Christians, however, “being hidden is as much a part of their identity as being Christian” (p. 156). They fear their rituals might become “polluted” due to exposure (p. 218). Understandably they dislike the curious eyes of outsiders. In fact “[t]hese days it’s said the Hidden Christians are no longer hiding in persecution, but from journalists and researchers that descend on them in droves” (p. 174).

Sadly, like many other traditional cultures, their communities are vanishing. As in 2003, there were a mere “1,000 to 1,500 practitioners left, [and] most of them were elderly” (p. xiv). The Hidden Christians are in fact “a dying breed” (p. 8). Their old communal way of living including arranged marriage does not match the contemporary age. Here we are shown the wider issue of modernisation and cultural loss.

So what can we learn from this vanishing community? Dougill says that the “genius” of the Hidden Christians was to reconcile the “unbridgeable gap” between the Christian God and Japanese ancestral deities (p. 225). Whether or not people agree with him, Dougill’s position is certainly a good starting point in discussing the issues of the East and the West, and Japan and Christianity. I am glad this book was written before it is too late.

About the Author

Rie Kido Askew was awarded a PhD from the Center of Post-Colonial Writing, Department of English, Monash University, Australia, in August 2009. Her research interests are Japanese and English literature, modern thought and history, and the dilemma posed by modernity and cultural loss. Her published papers include 'A Literate Tiger: "Sangetsuki" (Tiger-Poet) and the Tragedy of Discordance' (Japanese Studies, December 2005), and 'The Politics of Nostalgia: Museum Representations of Lafcadio Hearn in Japan' (Museum and Society, November 2007). Her PhD thesis, 'Reading Lafcadio: Culture, Nationalism and the Making of "Koizumi Yakumo"', examined the Japanese reception of Lafcadio Hearn.

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